In two debates last Friday and Tuesday, Republican Party candidates for House District 31 representative answered questions on everything from books to marijuana to support for seniors. But it was another “b” word — the budget — that dominated discussions at debates sponsored by the Friends of the Homer Public Library and the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.
Seven-term Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, faces a challenge from Homer Mayor Mary E. “Beth” Wythe and Anchor Point businessman John “Bear” Cox. No Democratic Party, minor party and independent candidates have filed for the general election, so barring a write-in campaign, the Republican who wins will be Homer’s representative. Early voting has started for the primary to be held next Tuesday, Aug. 16. Only Republican Party members or people registered as undeclared or nonpartisan can take the Republican ballot.
The three faced off in a debate sponsored by the Friends of the Homer Public Library last Friday and in a second debate on Tuesday sponsored by the chamber at the Homer Elks Lodge. About 75 people attended each debate. The formats were similar: give an opening statement, take a battery of questions and make closing remarks.
How to raise revenues beyond oil taxes and royalties, how to cut the budget and how to move Alaska beyond a petroleum economy were topics that came up at both debates.
Seaton articulated a big issue facing Alaska when he answered a question at the library debate about funding the Alaska State Library, which also supports local libraries. He said Alaskans have to make a choice of how much they are willing to contribute to fund the state and which services would go away. Alaskans haven’t reached the point where they say which services they want, Seaton said.
“They just say, ‘We want these services and we don’t want to pay,’” he said. “That’s the dilemma we’re at right now, and whether we have to close the library and other functions before people realize that they really did like those services, we’ll find out.”
At the chamber debate, Wythe, who spoke of her experience as Homer mayor in balancing a budget in the face of declining state support, said, “I am well known for saying we are happy to provide the government that pays for the services you want to pay for.”
The candidates defined their approaches to Alaska’s fiscal crisis at both debates. At the library debate, in response to the question, “What is the single largest budget issue?” Wythe said, “The economy. We have to talk about ways to develop an economy other than oil and gas.”
Seaton said, “It’s the fiscal plan. … How are you going to have a sustainable plan that pays for your budget?”
Cox said, “We need to bring jobs here. You can’t tax businesses so they don’t want to come here.”
The question of how to reduce state spending also came up at both debates. At the library debate, Seaton said, “We can’t nickel and dime things and spend all our time looking at tiny cuts. We need to look at big chunks. The biggest chunk is oil and gas tax credits.”
Wythe defended those credits, though.
“It’s easy to say we have to look at the big pieces, but when the big pieces are the foundation of the income sources we have, we need to protect some of that,” she said.
At the chamber debate, Wythe elaborated on that point.
“I don’t believe eliminating them (tax credits) is the right solution. The value of employees working in the oil and gas industry is … the contribution they make with the multiplier effect is substantial.”
Cox suggested another way to cut the budget: consolidate school boards.
“Why do we need so many? They’re all doing the same job,” he said.
Another library debate question expanded on cuts, asking what sacrifices could be expected at the local level.
“It would be unrealistic to imagine …. that there will not be cuts to services,” Wythe said. “Whether it will be a hardship to you depends on your perspective. … No one told us what did Alaskans say we can do without. If Alaskans say these are things we can do without, we should be cutting those services.”
Seaton said people can either sacrifice money to sustain services or sacrifice those services.
“Your infrastructure is going to go to pot. State services are going to be cut drastically,” he said, if revenues can’t be found. “People have generally said they don’t want to go back to the level of services they had in 1960, gravel roads from here to Kenai.”
Cox said, “As a businessman, I know we all fall on hard times. As a Catholic I believe in giving a hand, but I don’t believe in giving a handout.”
On the question of funding the University of Alaska, though, Wythe said she didn’t support cuts.
“For me, economic and development and university funds are the last places you want to cut. Those are drivers to the economy,” she said.
Seaton said he thought Gov. Bill Walker’s cuts to the University of Alaska in the latest budget were too steep.
“I understand why the governor had to look around. The $10 million he took out was tough, but not so tough it closed the campuses,” he said.
Future cuts will be worse, Seaton predicted.
“There are things that are going to go away. Intercollegiate sports, I can tell you they are going to be gone in two years,” he said.
Cox drew a chorus of boos at the library forum when he said, “I don’t believe the cuts have been enough. The universities are a business, they’re there to make money,” he said. “Well, I’m not going to win this one here, am I?”
At both debates the question came up about increasing state revenues either through taxes or other sectors of the economy. All three candidates opposed a state sales tax. Cox and Wythe both said they opposed a state income tax as well as capping or changing the formula of the Permanent Fund Dividend.
At the chamber debate, Wythe said it could come to the point where Alaskans are willing to reduce PFDs or pay income taxes.
“Taxation is traditional, it’s easy, it’s all those things, but I don’t think that’s where Alaska is,” she said.
Seaton said he supports an income tax and a change in allocating the PFD. Seaton introduced a bill in the last session that would impose an income tax of 15 percent of what taxpayers pay in federal taxes as well as a 10 percent tax on capital gains. That would raise about $650 million, Seaton said. He also would change the PFD so that instead of 50 percent of the distributable income going to dividends, 25 percent would go to dividends and 25 percent to the general fund.
In terms of increasing revenues through other sectors of the economy, at the library debate, Wythe noted how New York is pushing development to support Arctic shipping.
“We cannot miss the fact the Arctic is opening to transport,” she said. “We can get a piece of that.”
At the chamber debate, Wythe expanded on that point.
“I think the state has to look at every opportunity for diversification. Alaskans survived before oil and gas. They worked hard. Everyone was pulling on the same rope, as the governor would say,” she said.
Seaton said the state has tried before to stimulate new economies.
“The problem with many of the solutions that have been talked about is they all cost money,” he said. “Supporting billions for Arctic infrastructure, that’s not generating revenue for the state.”
The way to generate new revenue is the way the other 49 states do it, Seaton said.
“They do it three ways: a state property tax, a state sales tax or a state income tax,” he said at the chamber debate.
“Income tax makes sense as 28 percent are nonresidents (and) they’re paying income tax in home state. If we had income tax here, they would pay here,” he said at the library debate.
Cox suggested a new approach.
“Let’s do something fun. Let’s bring Power Ball to the state of Alaska,” he said. “People spending money in the state. That’s what we need is to create business in the state.”
At the chamber debate, he offered another idea.
“One suggestion is to borrow from the Permanent Fund, a small portion. Invest in a high-yield, high-risk market. Then invest in a medium-risk, medium-yield market. Then in a low-risk, low-yield. Take the money borrowed from the Permanent Fund, put back in there,” he said.
On other questions, the candidates expressed support for seniors, but also noted the challenge of senior property tax exemptions. In response to the question of if seniors are a drain or benefit for the economy, all three agree they were a benefit.
“Of course,” Seaton said. “All people living here are a benefit.”
But every person living here also is a drain on the budget, he added.
“We’re the only state in the nation that does not have people paying anything for the services we get,” Seaton said.
“I love seniors. We have to take care of them as much as we can,” Cox said.
“I know senior citizens are a huge contribution to society,” Wythe said.
When asked at the chamber debate if they would continue the senior property tax exemption, Cox said he favored continuing the exemption.
Seaton clarified the exemption, pointing out it’s not a state tax exemption because no one pays taxes to the state. It’s a state-mandated exemption of $150,000 off a property tax assessment.
“What we have is a mandate that local governments give the exemption,” Seaton said.
The issue is that it’s an unfunded state mandate and cities have to give the exemption. The city of Homer passed a resolution asking for the state to remove the mandate. Seaton said he introduced a bill that would put the decision in the hands of cities and require a vote of the people to eliminate. Wythe agreed with that approach.
“I’m in favor of the state returning the question back to the local government,” she said.
Questions about marijuana came up at both debates. “How do they feel about the process to allow the commercial sale of marijuana?” the candidates were asked at the library debate.
Seaton said alcohol abuse was a more serious problem than marijuana.
“Alcohol lowers inhibitions, increases aggression, leads to domestic violence and child abuse,” he said.
If people want to change their mental condition and switch from alcohol to marijuana, “We would be saving our society a huge social cost,” Seaton said.
Cox said he supported the will of the people — “the lesser magistrate” — when it passed Ballot Measure 2 legalizing personal, medical and commercial use of cannabis.
When the question of banning commercial cannabis came up at the Homer City Council, Wythe said if the vote had come to her in the case of a tie, she would have voted for banning commercial use. She also said that she felt in a party environment, marijuana becomes “a huge gateway.”
“If you think you have an issue with heroin, open the doors to marijuana. It lowers their inhibitions and they use other drugs. It’s an issue I’ve taken a positive stand on,” Wythe said.
The candidates elaborated on that at the chamber debate when a question came up about the role the state plays in reducing the harmful impacts of opioids and how legal marijuana plays into.
Wythe noted the efforts of the city of Homer with its committee to come up with solutions to reduce harmful impacts of opioids. She noted a needle exchange program that got started out of that effort.
Wythe said she isn’t opposed to medical marijuana.
“One of the things with marijuana is it helps people get off opioids,” she said.
Seaton said he favored changes in how doctors prescribe prescription opioids. The Centers for Disease Control recommends acute pain be treated with a three-day prescription. Some doctors give a 30-day prescription, Seaton said. By the end of a month, some patients are almost addicted, he said.
“Marijuana I don’t think has anything to do with the prescription drug problem created by the medical community,” Seaton said.
One problem with opioids is that the state prescribes it, Cox said. He also favored more funding for rehabilitation facilities. On a personal note, he spoke of his wife Susan’s struggle with addiction to alcohol and other substances.
“Marijuana has been an item that has saved my wife’s life,” he said.